Skirting the Issue - Justice for Jean must really mean life

You hear a lot when you work as a journalist. A lot of it is run of the mill stuff - stories you write and in the course of a busy week, month or year you tend to forget about.

Some things stay with you. I never knew Jean Quigley. I’d never met her. She didn’t factor on my radar at all until we heard of her murder. But her face, and the image of the man who so violently took her life has stayed with me ever since. Her story was not just “another day at the office”. I think it would be fair to say that what happened to Jean and to her family affected every journalist and every decent minded person in this city. It has stayed with us - and I’m sure I am not the only one who internally cheered with joy on Monday when Stephen Cahoon was finally convicted of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

A journalist is supposed to maintain a certain impartiality; I have no such impartiality when it comes to describing Stephen Cahoon. When sentencing on Monday Mr Justice Barry White described him as a “danger to society in general and to women in particular”.

I’d go one step further. Stephen Cahoon - a man who choked the life from a pregnant woman - is evil. For those unaware of his previous record, he left teenager Lynne McGall for dead in a field, beating her so savagely that she was unrecognisable. He later beat his girlfriend Samantha Brown, the mother of his child, so savagely that she feared for her life. Recalling how he beat her with a belt, Samantha said: “I know I wouldn’t be here today if the belt hadn’t snapped.”

For these crimes, Cahoon was sentenced to a total of just 5 years and three months - a term later reduced. I’ve looked at the pictures of Lynne McGall after her attack. I’ve read the statements of Samantha Brown and I wonder how in any just world that sentence was fit? Surely the sentence he received should have been longer - surely there should have been more checks placed on this monster? Is it not the case that if the authorities in this country took the issue of violence against women seriously, Jean Quigley may still be here today? That her children would still have their mother? Her mother would still have her daughter and a community would not be scarred by the terrible events of July 26, 2008?

Cahoon argued in court that he did not mean to kill Jean. He attested that he was not guilty of her murder - but guilty instead of manslaughter. He told the jury that he “saw red” after Jean told him she would abort his baby. He told the jury her injuries - and they were severe, bruising which indicated she had been restrained, marks on her body which indicated she had been tortured - were down to her sexual preferences. He did not allow Jean dignity in life and he stripped her of all dignity in death.

Those who know Jean know she would never have contemplated an abortion. Those who know her would tell you she was a dedicated mother, a genuinely “nice girl” - the kind of woman you would want to sit and chat with over a cuppa. Those who know her have had to listen to Cahoon tear her character apart in a desperate, pathetic attempt to save his own sick and sorry skin. He did not care about what hurt he caused her, her family or anyone close to her by killing her and by following up this crime by layering tissue of lies over tissue of lies. He was, and is, essentially a coward.

To read or hear the evidence heard by the jury at his trial in Dublin was disturbing. Police in Derry, in an emotive statement released immediately after the murder conviction on Monday, said she suffered “an horrendous death at Cahoon’s hands”.

They added: “He (Cahoon) is a dangerous sexual predator with a history of violence against women. He deserves to stay behind bars for a very long time.”

It is a shame - a very real shame - those words were not used when he was convicted of the assaults against Lynne McGall and Samantha Brown. It is a shame - a criminal shame - that violence of such an horrendous level against women attracts such short sentences that just eight years after those convictions he was free to worm his way into Jean’s life, to abuse her, to hurt her, to scare her and to murder her. One cannot begin to imagine what went through her head on the night of her death. How she would have feared for herself, and the life of her unborn baby, how she must have thought of her children, her mother, her friends. How she must have experienced a living hell.

Cahoon has been sentenced to life - no one knows what that may mean in real terms. My only hope is that he is never, ever allowed to be given the chance to inflict such pain and suffering on anyone else ever again.

Life should in this instance mean life and those with the power to make judicial changes should look long and hard at how offenders such as him ever find themselves on the streets again.

At this time, all our thoughts must be with the Quigley family and those who finally have some form of justice for Jean, who said with such dignity on Monday: “The family will take our time to move on together, but our Jean is still missing.”